Brian Barry-Murphy admitted his Rochdale side were in a state of shock after their 2-1 defeat at home to Doncaster confirmed their relegation to League Two.
Two goals from Taylor Richards either side of the interval came against the run of play and left Dale with a mountain to climb.
Matty Done’s late strike proved scant consolation as they were unable to find an equaliser which would have taken the fight for survival into the last weekend of the season, results among their rivals in the survival fight having gone favourably for Dale.
“I’m very disappointed and I feel responsible for the end result,” said Barry-Murphy. “All season I’ve been aware and understood how difficult it was but I honestly didn’t feel we would be relegated.
“I always felt that with the talent within our squad we would succeed and, I suppose, prove everybody wrong. When that didn’t materialise, today and over the course of the last few weeks, I just feel sorry for our supporters and our players – it’s very difficult in this moment.
“It’s very hard for the players because they genuinely believed all season that we’d succeed – and by succeed I mean getting out of the position we were in in the league table. We felt in the last few weeks we’d found form and our home form had finally given us the results we needed. So today was a bit of a shock to us.”
Dale started the game on top and Louis James was kept busy in the Rovers goal, keeping out efforts from Ollie Rathbone and Jimmy Keohane while Matt Lund’s header struck the crossbar.
But Richards’ strike on the half-hour mark was a bitter blow, the on-loan Brighton man meeting a Jason Lokilo cross and slotting past Jay Lynch at the second attempt.
Richards doubled the lead on 56 minutes, seizing on a defensive mistake and firing into the far corner of Lynch’s goal.
Done rifled into the roof of the net from close range on 83 minutes but hopes of a grandstand finish never materialised and Rovers saw the game out comfortably.
Rovers interim manager Andy Butler said: “I’m pleased with the performance and obviously pleased with the win, it’s been a long time coming.
“Unfortunately it means Rochdale go down and hopefully they can bounce straight back up because they are a good club run by good guys.
“The aim for us going forward for the remaining games is to win both and finish the season on a high, try to take the momentum into next year. There are a few players who will be leaving and a few staying, so if we can take momentum into next season we’ll see where it takes us.
“From my point, as player-manager, it’s up to the club to decide what happens – I still have a playing contract next year so I’ll still be here.”